The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

Covid Abela and other points

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 2 August 2020, 10:37 Last update: about 7 months ago

Robert Abela inherited a government tainted by accusations of corruption that are, little by little, being in large measure confirmed. The Vitals scandal is one clear example; Neville Gafà’s dark deeds are another. The declarations made by Vincent Muscat, through his lawyer, also promise to shed light on the dark depths our democracy was thrown into by Dr Abela’s predecessor and his cohort of picaroons.


And yet, despite the filth that should, in theory, have pulverised any government in a normal country, Dr Abela’s approval ratings are consistently high. This is, no doubt, due in large measure to his soft leadership style and his lack of ideological drive (very much unlike his now-disgraced but once much-adored predecessor). Dr Abela is, to my understanding, more of a dull administrator than a sparkling social reformer.

But now even as an administrator Dr Abela is beginning to let his inherent weakness shine through. The unbelievably irrational dispute with the medical and related professions is witness to this. It seems quite obvious to me that the health professionals are right. Mass activities are an unnecessary risk with no added value for the economy. The doctors and kindred professionals are incontrovertibly right. You don’t need to be a Nobel laureate to understand that the ban they’re requesting is more than reasonable, for both public health and long-term economic recovery.

That Dr Abela should have found himself quarrelling with health professionals is a clear indication of his inherent weakness. I’m writing this on Friday, so I cannot foretell what will happen by Sunday. But that is actually irrelevant for the purposes of my argument, which is political not medical. Politically, Dr Abela’s stance and apparent stubbornness are beyond comprehension: how can you ignore the professionals?

However, that stubbornness brings to the fore two considerations. One, that the country would have been a better place had Chris Fearne won the leadership race last January.

Two, that Dr Abela’s high approval ratings are also due to a rudderless parliamentary opposition – hopefully, the PN will find a way out of the political wilderness in the coming weeks. A country with a weak Prime Minister and an even weaker opposition is basically screwed.

Ennio Morricone…

… passed away a few weeks ago. It seems to me that whereas Beethoven’s the voice of the first half of the 19th century and the Romantic Nationalists that of the latter half, Ennio Morricone is the authentic voice of the 20th century. I can think of no other 20th-century composer who managed to move so many people. Yes, there might be Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Sibelius and Ravel, Cage and Xenakis, Górecki and Prokofiev – but none of them managed to touch people’s hearts as Morricone did.

I’m actually sorry I didn’t write about this great composer before, but political events sometimes require urgent attention. All said and done, however, when the wrath of the gods will have been placated, we will forget many of the details – just as we’ve forgotten about past political events – but we will always cherish Morricone’s music, because music is the soul’s most potent medicine.

Morricone was exceedingly skilful in creating hauntingly beautiful melodies encapsulated in structures that gave the impression of compositional simplicity. Just think of his Ecstasy of Gold, my favourite piece of his, I must admit. The structure seems simple – but if you listen carefully, you realise that at one point Morricone resolves the melodic part by crossing a bridge that’s so abstract, it seems to float in the air, only then to come back with a restrained crescendo again to propose the pulsating energy of the theme of the greed for gold. But that moment of abstract beauty! Ah! That’s the heart of the piece, that’s the fleeting, abstract moment when you experience something rushing through your body, when you experience the ecstasy of gold!

Think also of his deceptively simple Two Mules for Sister Sara theme: it’s the same story all over again. Indeed, cinema – the 20th century’s most potent means of entertainment and communication – built Morricone’s fame. But Morricone also contributed to enhance the cinematographic experience. And it’s not just Sergio Leone’s classic movies. Morricone’s music also elevates movies made by lesser directors, endowing them with a non-visual dimension that fills in the void left by directors and actors alike.

Morricone’s music was unique: powerful, subtle, melodic yet venturing into moments of apparent “structurelessness”, and, all in all, so pleasing. Even if you didn’t know you were listening to a Morricone composition, you would still feel that it told you something you needed to listen to and delve into. This happened to me while listening to an Etta Scollo CD called Les Siciliens, when I kept wondering why one of her songs kept constantly catching my attention more than all the others: La Ballata del Prefetto Mori. Now Scollo sings in Sicilian and the lyrics of this ballad on Prefect Mori are powerful not only because of their subject-matter (Cesare Mori was a sworn enemy of the Mafia but was stopped in his tracks when he discovered links between members in or close to the government and organised crime) but also because they are in pithy Sicilian. But the melody – terse, curt, harsh, and yet inexplicably suave – is superb. So superb that I had to do some research… and I discovered it was a Morricone song for a movie of the 1970s starring Giuliano Gemma. Morricone was so good that when you don’t know he’s the composer of the piece you’re listening to, you feel compelled to find out.

The world lost the greatest composer of the 20th century. And the most humble and courageous too. When he was finally awarded the Oscar in 2016, he dedicated it to his wife. How many men have got the guts to do that?

Maltese Quirks – 2

The people who pose a danger to a language are those who know a little bit of one language and a little bit of another language, but can’t master either. The villager who never went to school speaks a beautiful vernacular because he was never exposed to the corrosion of the foreign (dominant) tongue. The high-achieving scholar manages the foreign tongue brilliantly. But the bloke in the middle, who can’t master either language... now he’s the real threat. He starts learning the dominant tongue but fails to achieve fluency yet succeeds in corrupting the vernacular.

There are many examples to prove my point, and the more intelligent readers will have already started drawing up lists. But the example I want to bring forth today is “skont”. I might enter into the debate of skond v. skont, but I want to focus on something else that I find uncompromisingly nonsensical: the creation of “skontu”. Skonti, skontok, skontu, skontha, skontna, skontkom, skonthom. Why is this nonsense? There are two reasons.

One, nobody who’s a native speaker says skontna. Have you ever heard a native speaker say, Għax skonthom … ?

Two, skont is used in a calque construction. Calque means literal translation, for instance jekk jogħġbok is calqued on the French s’il vous plaît and the dubious waqa’ fuq widenjn torox on the English to fall on deaf ears.

“According to me” in Maltese is an example of calque, this time based on the Italian “secondo me”. Skonti is therefore gibberish as it would imply that the original in Italian was “secondo di me”.

We Maltese constantly use calque: if you don’t believe me, ask your Arab plasterer if many of our Semitic-sounding phrases make sense in Arabic: not just jekk jogħġbok but id waħda wara, l-oħra quddiem (calqued on the Italian una mano d’avanti, l’altra dietro), ħarġet tqila (calqued on the Italian è uscita incinta), and so on. The Maltese way is to hear the phrase in a foreign language, and then to repeat it in Semitic words – the calque.

Thus “according to him” in Maltese should be “skont hu” not “skontu” (secondo lui not secondo di lui). Skontu is a neologism that is both unnecessary and nonsensical. It’s actually offensive to anybody with a modicum of culture. Only the illiterate who learnt who to read and write can say skontu.

My Personal Library (99)

Today I want to discuss two books.

In his The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (1995), journalist Robert Wright writes about what was back then, in the 1990s, a new science: evolutionary psychology. It’s a science that explains human psychology using neo-Darwinian logic, in the sense that our moral choices are explained in terms of the evolutionary advantage deriving from them. Essentially, evolutionary psychology is predicated on the idea that all of human moral behaviour is aimed at increasing the individual’s chances of passing on his/her genes to the next generation.

Jordan Peterson, considered one of the foremost intellectuals of our times, is an exponent of evolutionary psychology and Wright’s book is a good primer for those who follow Professor Peterson’s lectures on YouTube. It is telling that those values we consider “conservative” are actually the most consonant with evolutionary psychology, whereas “liberal” values are the product of armchair thinking divorced from empirical observation and scientific deduction from such observation.

For instance, Peterson makes the point that whereas liberals insist on positive discrimination to achieve gender equality, in Scandinavia, where society has fully embraced hardcore liberal values, people move toward “traditional” gender roles. It would seem that “traditional” gender roles are embedded in our psychology.

Some people argue that we’re now creating “evolution” – modern humanity’s “evolving” toward liberalism. I think such wild assertions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the long-term nature of “evolution”. But, yes, self-delusion could lead to a willed misunderstanding of “evolution”.

The other book I want to highlight is Ġużé Bonnici’s In-Novelli (Għaqda tal-Malti – Università, 2007). Here I must declare that I have a conflict of interest, as I was involved in the editorial board of that book and I even translated Bonnici’s short story La Pazza into Maltese. Dr Bonnici, who died at the young age of 33, was one of the founders of the Għaqda tal-Malti and was also a prolific writer who not only wrote fiction but also published two books on medicine in Maltese and a book on politics.

There’s one short story in particular which I like a lot, called Ġenn! in which Bonnici writes about a megalomaniac who’s committed to a mental hospital and in his madness comes up with a theory on hypocrisy and hypocrites. Bonnici is obviously being devious and ironic – the madman is not mad at all, and his observations are as sane as can be. But because they are also offensive, the authors feels bound to shroud them in the words of a “madman”.


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